National

Elevator death bares systemic ills

Makers seen keeping unaffiliated maintainers in dark

by Akemi Nakamura

elevators








News photo
A man enters the City Heights Takeshiba building in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on June 7, as a police officer stands by the elevator that malfunctioned June 3, killing a high school boy.
KYODO PHOTO


“Right after the accident, I took the stairs to get my apartment on the 15th floor. Now I take the elevator again, but I’m still worried something may happen,” a 59-year-old female resident said, asking not to be named.
On June 3, 16-year-old Hirosuke Ichikawa was crushed to death in one of the two elevators made by Schindler Elevator K.K. in the 23-story building.
The elevator had suddenly started to move up, with the doors still open, as he was getting off with his bicycle on the 12th floor, where he lived. He was pinned between the rising elevator and the door frame.
Although the cause of the accident has yet to be pinpointed, it cast a harsh spotlight on flaws in the nation’s elevator safety inspection system, and left high-rise residents and building caretakers anxious about safety.
“One time when I was on the elevator, it began vibrating. I reported this to the building manager, but he said, ‘It’s OK,’ ” the woman said. “Unless a major accident happens, no one takes minor problems seriously.”
Currently, the Building Standards Law requires building caretakers to have all elevators thoroughly inspected once a year by qualified personnel, including a certified architect, with annual reports submitted to local governments detailing any problems and corrective action.
Building managers must also have their elevators checked once a month by a general-level building engineer.
But other than the annual report, accounts of other malfunctions are not obligatory, leading some experts to call for mandatory disclosure of even minor faults.
Industry insiders also say there is little communication among manufacturers, parties contracted to maintain elevators and building managers, leaving the door open to more accidents.
The lack of communication especially between makers and independent maintenance firms that are not affiliated with the manufacturers is a major problem, said Shigeru Mine, spokesman for the Elevator Maintenance Union, comprised of 18 small and midsize independent maintenance firms.
“We exchange information among union member firms” to provide better maintenance services,” Mine said, noting other independent firms may not have access to technical information on elevators.
“If independent firms can’t repair defects, then – are left as they are.”

He also said elevator manufacturers are reluctant to sell repair parts to independent maintenance firms.

Roughly 580,000 elevators were operating in Japan as of March 2005, and 90 percent of their maintenance is handled by firms affiliated with the manufacturers, according to the Japan Elevator Association, which is made up of 99 makers, including Toshiba Elevator Building Systems Corp. and Hitachi Ltd.

Though the share of independent maintenance firms is small, Gihei Takahashi, a professor at architecture at Toyo University’s faculty of human life design in Saitama Prefecture, stressed that sharing safety information enables makers and maintenance firms to take measures to prevent accidents.

Kunio Kokubo, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kogakuin University in Tokyo, said manufacturers are reluctant to share design and other technical information with nonaffiliated independents.

“Makers want their affiliated firms to maintain their elevators,” he said. “It also increases groupwide profits for makers.”

A Japan Elevator Association official argued that independent firms don’t have the expertise to make proper repairs.

“If they make maintenance contracts with building owners, they should have the ability to deal with any problems the elevators under their care encounter,” the official said, asking not to be identified. “If they don’t know how to fix malfunctions, they won’t ask makers for manuals because that would only reveal their lack of expertise.”

In fact, Schindler executives said in a news conferences in Tokyo last month that SEC Elevator Co., the independent firm contracted to maintain the two elevators at City Heights Takeshiba, neither requested nor was given a maintenance manual.

Following the accident, an advisory panel at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry on June 23 began discussing ways to prevent elevator accidents.

The panel hopes to submit preventive measures in late August.

In the meantime, building managers are growing increasingly worried about elevator maintenance.

“The accident exposed a breakdown in the current elevator inspection system,” said Chiaki Tanigaki, secretary general of the Japan Federation of Condominium Associations, a nonprofit group of 17 condo resident associations.

“We have to become more careful when selecting a firm for elevator maintenance by examining not only their maintenance service fees but also their technical capabilities,” he said.

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